On Fear and Learning to Fly

The barbell was heavy, it felt so damn heavy in my hands.

How on earth, I wondered, would I be able to throw this over my head? Well I wasn’t able to. And for a long time I thought it was because I wasn’t strong enough or my technique wasn’t good enough.

Sure, both of those could always use improvement. But it was fear that stopped me cold that day and many days after that. Fear of injury, of failure, of an arbitrary number on the bar or movement on the whiteboard.

We are taught from a young age to self-preserve, to proceed with caution. Throwing hundreds of pounds overhead and getting under that loaded bar can’t possibly be a GOOD idea. We are so afraid of looking foolish, of having to STILL scale a movement or not do it right that we don’t do it at all.

In world where few of us are full-time paid weightlifters or CrossFit athletes, most of us are just seeking self-improvement. Yet we let fear and the foolish pride that often goes with it get in our way. Understand that you can do everything right —from warmup to training, sleep and nutrition— and it won’t matter a bit if you let fear take over.

But this isn’t an article about eliminating fear. This is about learning to fly.

Recognize that you’re afraid. 

For months and months I had a nagging wrist injury. When it finally got better heavy cleans —one of my favorite movements — became a source of serious uneasiness.

One bad catch and I just knew my wrist issue would return. So, I babied them. I lowered the percentages and every time it got close to a certain number —not even my one-rep max, just a number I arbitrarily deemed would feel heavy— I ended things.

It wasn’t until I visited a different gym and mistakenly loaded up plates that I matched my scary number.

Not only did it not feel heavy, but I had wasted months of being healthy and not getting stronger!

It’s perfectly normal to be afraid of a certain weight or skill, but instead of pushing those thoughts away and avoiding the situation, recognize that you’re in a state of fear. Then, reassure yourself of all the work you’ve put in to make that fear not matter. In my case, I had already cleaned the weight before my injury. I was strong enough before and certainly strong enough months later. Had I focused on my strength and skill, and not my fear, I would have blasted through that plateau much quicker.

Develop a mantra. 

If people only knew the power they had over their own training. Something as simple as a shift in focus can have a profound impact on a lift or workout.

Heavy squat? Move away from thinking about how it’s going to feel like a metric ton on your back. Instead find a technique tip or mantra to repeat to yourself as you unrack the bar. Maybe it’s ‘Chest up, eyes forward’  or ‘I’m going to own this barbell.’ Find whatever works for you.

The same thing can be applied to a scary workout- instead of thinking about the daunting number of heavy wall balls or pull-ups, think ‘Push with my legs’ or ‘Stay tight and use my lats’. Essentially, you’re redirecting your energy into something more useful. Positive self-talk in a tough workout or training set can be a separator. If you don’t believe us, talk to any elite athlete about the importance of your mental game.

Turn into it extra energy. 

Fear can push you to do some remarkable things. And if you can think of it that way, as a step in the right direction, all those butterflies and shakes can give you some extra power, too.

We only are afraid of things that are outside of our comfort zone and to get there you’re going to need everything. So, why not use that fear as an extra jolt in pulling the bar off the ground or getting a snappy transition on your muscle-ups?

Have some perspective. 

Honestly, what is the worst that will happen if you don’t make the lift or fail a few reps in your WOD?

Will your world end? Will people laugh at you? Will you be kicked out of the gym and unable to eat or sleep for a week? No. You’ve just given yourself a goal for the next time.

So, acknowledge the fear, reassure yourself you’ve got what it takes and concentrate on the lift or what workout entails instead.

If a heavy barbell doesn’t scare you, it’s probably not heavy enough!